Yesterday, chief executive Sam McIvor said the Government had ‘‘repeated a mantra of ‘right tree, right purpose, right place’’’ but evidence showed that was not happening and it was threatening rural communities and the country’s future economic viability.
An independent study by BakerAg, commissioned by B+LNZ, showed a significant increase in the amount of farmland sold into forestry, driven largely by an increase in the carbon price.
While unable to identify exactly how much of the sheep and beef farmland was intended for pure carbon farming, it was estimated about 26,550ha of the 77,800ha of whole farms sold into forestry since 2017 were to carbon-only entities, based on examination of land titles.
The carbon farming debate has been particularly hot in North Otago. The sale this year of Hazeldean, a 2590ha sheep, beef and deer farm near Tokarahi, to New Zealand Carbon Farming, sparked public meetings and an apology from Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher for not taking action on carbon forestry conversions earlier.
BakerAg’s report said 3965ha of whole sheep and beef farms were sold into forestry in 2017 , increasing to 20,227ha in 2018 and 36,824ha in 2019.
It dropped to 16,764ha in 2020 - likely as a result of Covid-19 - but rural intelligence suggested it had regathered momentum and moved into new regions, Mr McIvor said in a statement.
B+LNZ said the report also ‘‘busts myths’’ about trees going on ‘‘unproductive’’ land and reinforced the organisation’s view that the integration of forestry on farms was a better way of managing landscapes and meeting climate change targets.
The amount of land intended to change into forestry on average already exceeded the levels of afforestation recently recommended by the Climate Change Commission for meeting Zero Carbon Act targets, Mr McIvor said.
On average between 2018 and 2020, the report identified more than 29,500ha each year was intended to change into exotic forestry, which exceeded the 25,000 ha per annum of exotic pines identified by the Climate Change Commission.
The 29,500ha was from a combination of the plantable area of whole farm sales into forestry and funding to plant exotic trees within farms under two Government schemes.
The Climate Change Commission was suggesting the carbon price would rapidly increase and the sector was calling on the Government to work with it, and the forestry sector, on how forestry offsetting could be managed.
‘‘Without urgent action, the sale of sheep and beef farms into forestry will only accelerate if the carbon price increases, and fossil fuel emitters will continue to get a ‘get out of jail free’ card and not change their behaviour,’’ Mr McIvor said.
A common narrative was that planting was happening on non-productive farmland. The research found 64% of the planting was on low erosion or moderate erosion land, which was often highly productive hill country.
‘‘This idea that wholesale land conversion is happening on hills that aren’t productive, that are prone to slipping away, isn’t borne out by the evidence,’’ he said.
Mr McIvor stressed that B+LNZ was not against forestry and strongly supported the integration of trees on farms.
B+LNZ estimated that transitioning productive land to exotic forestry over the last three years had resulted in a reduction of up to 700,000 stock units (or 700,000 sheep), with downstream implications for processing companies and supplying services.
Asked for comment on the report, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said the Government had always been committed to ‘‘right tree right place’’. It continued to closely monitor forestry planting and it was listening to people’s concerns.
‘‘We have to be careful not to cut across farmers’ rights to make decisions about their land. I note that the report says that during the period 47,000ha of planting has occurred within farming operations.
‘‘That speaks to farmers seeing the value of diversified land use and the potential for both commercial forestry and carbon credit income,’’ Mr O’Connor said.
He was advised by officials that the amount of land planted between 2017 and 2020 was 87,200 ha, which is 37% lower than the BakerAg report.
Government afforestation estimates were based on a combination of land use mapping, nursery sales, and funding within the 1BT programme.
Estimates for what would be planted was hard to do, given the lag between land purchase, approvals and the planting activity itself, Mr O’Connor said.
Previously (for around 20 years) New Zealand experienced deforestation and today the forest estate was around 70,000ha smaller than it was in 2000, he said.